Is this quote to bypass broken sewer line in the ballpark of reasonable?
December 13, 2015 6:06 PM   Subscribe

Had a blocked sewer this morning. Plumbers unblocked it, charged $900 for the unblocking and CCTV investigation. The camera showed a large hole at one section of the (clay) pipe, and tree roots at another point. The plumber says the whole pipe should be replaced, and that it can't be relined. This would involve disconnecting the bathroom plumbing, jackhammering up 2x4m of concrete, moving the hot water cylinder which is currently in the way, putting in new PVC pipes that bypass the old broken one, and repouring concrete, installing inspection hatches this time. Removal of waste included. The quote is $14,250 plus GST. Is this anywhere near what I should expect?

This morning's $900 was WAY above what I was expecting (more like $300-ish max) but they said it was because there was no access hatch to the sewer, so they had to disconnect and reconnect my toilet to get at it. All the same, it was less than 1 hour's work (and they charged me for the full hour of labour even though at least 20 minutes of it was the guy sitting around waiting for his supervisor to ring him back with a quote).

I must have looked disbelieving about the $900, because the plumber showed me the company price book and walked me through it, so I know he wasn't just making numbers up. But because it's higher than other people's experience when I googled, I wonder if the second quote for the full repair is also over-priced.

I called a bunch of other plumbers and only found one other one willing to give me a free quote. All the others say they would have to put a camera down the pipe again, which would involve disconnecting the toilet again, and therefore a few hundred dollars before they can even quote me. The one who is willing to give me a quote for free is coming out this afternoon, but I don't know if I can trust them, as the other plumbers said that no reputable plumber would give a quote without doing camera exploration first.

This morning's plumber says that if I call them back to schedule the work today they will credit me for this morning's work, plus give me a 10% discount on the quote above, so that will be a savings of about $2400. So even if their quote is relatively high, unless it is $3000 higher than others are likely to be (since there's also the cost of other plumbers exploring the damage before quoting), I guess I should just go with them?

FInally, one of the plumbers I spoke to on the phone this morning said that he would recommend I don't get the pipe replaced at all at this stage, but wait and see how soon until it clogs again. I told him the other plumber said the damage was "extreme" and urgent, and that I shouldn't use the bathroom until it is fixed. And I saw the holes on the camera and it looked bad. But he said that's what they all say to try to get you to spend money, and that the camera makes things look bigger than they are. Obviously I like this advice the best, but I'm not sure if I should believe it.

Any experience with this sort of matter? Am I likely to find another plumber who would charge me less than, say, $13,000 for this? Can I really just wait and see, or is that asking for a bigger problem down the line?
posted by lollusc to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, meant to say I'm in Sydney, Australia.
posted by lollusc at 6:06 PM on December 13, 2015

I'm in the US but here semi-fraudulent sewer line replacement is pretty common.

You need another company to scope it. Ask around for an honest contractor. You don't have to share the exact info from the first company. If they are both in agreement, do the work. But there's a good chance the second company won't agree with the first, and the plumber you talked with on the phone hinted at this.

I don't know what material your line is made of, or the nature of the break (if any) but some sewer lines can be re-lined rather than dug up. But selling all new sewer lines makes a lot of money for contractors and they may be pushing you to make some work for them!

Spending the money to get a second opinion is definitely worth it. $900 does sound too high, and I've found sewer line company pricing varies widely in my area. Call around, and good luck.
posted by littlewater at 6:15 PM on December 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

I had the scoping done twice, once for the house I was looking at buying, and again for the house I eventually did buy. It cost me about $300 (USD, and in the US) each time. Both times they had to remove a toilet to do it, but they knew how and came prepared with new wax rings and it only took them a few minutes.

For the first house, that inspection actually became the major reason we didn't buy the house. The clay pipe was even worse (completely missing in some spots, essentially a tunnel in the dirt) and would have required a full replacement. We were quoted about $12,000 US for that. (Not counting figuring out what to do about the detached garage that had been built over top of the pipe)
posted by ctmf at 6:18 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suppose that video is not one they leave with you for the $900.00
posted by Freedomboy at 6:32 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was quoted 16- 20 K, (in the USA) plus extra to repair the sidewalk that would be ripped up.
I keep having it cleared out every six months, am hoping to hold off for a while doing it. The pipe is from 1931 and had tree roots in it.
posted by TenaciousB at 6:49 PM on December 13, 2015

I've replaced two sewer lines. I'm in Atlanta, so the prices aren't going to matter. I did pay $900 for the toilet removal thing, turns out the clean out was behind the drywall.

We got a trusted neighborhood plumber and he showed us where the clean out was, and he redid the first, not to code job for half the original price.

Instead of calling the outfit with the biggest ad, or the first listed on Google, ask neighbors about the local guy.
Also, this requires permits. Be sure to ask. My first plumber didn't pull permits. That's why there was a second plumber.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:54 PM on December 13, 2015

Household sewer work is like anything wedding-related: it automatically multiplies the price. It is definitely in your interest to get multiple quotes.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:55 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: No, they wouldn't give me the video.
posted by lollusc at 6:56 PM on December 13, 2015

Ok now I'm really suspicious. They all give out DVDs these days.
posted by littlewater at 7:41 PM on December 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

When I had my sewer line collapse about 3 years ago, the first person I called was a guy that specialised in clog clearing. He charged me $250 to scope it out and to put down an electric eel, but we did have an access hatch. He was quite happy to show me screen-shots of the pipe and gave me the info that the blockage was more severe than he could deal with but gave me the approximate location of where I could find it.

I then dug up the damn pipe myself just to make sure that I wasn't being cheated - it was tough work but it saved some money. It was obvious that the sewer line WAS collapsed - there was raw sewage everywhere and the old clay pipe was completely mashed.

I then called a different set of plumbers who send a guy to give me a quote. He didn't bother scoping it out because I had exposed the pipe and he could see the issue immediately. He gave me an itemised quote. Cost of getting 3 guys with a mini-bobcat out to dig it up (properly!), replace the pipes, re-bed it and fill in the spoil was about $4.5K, and took about a day.

Your job sounds more complicated than mine, so I would definitely get at least one more quote. The guy offering the discount is probably not trying to scam you, but I hate pushy sales tactics like this and would be inclined to tell him "no" on principal. However, $2400 is a lot of money, so it might be worth it.

I'm in Western Sydney (Parramatta area) so if it's at all helpful, I'm happy to go find the details of the guys we used if you want a recommendation. The work wasn't cheap but they were up to their knees in my old crap (literally, alas) and I think they earned it.
posted by ninazer0 at 7:44 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Unblock + cam for $900? Are they scaling for Sydney house prices?

I had a problem sewer line (in Melbourne). We'd get it unblocked each 6-12 months, at about $120 a time.

I had a camera out. Paid for the time, got a quote to fix it. Can't recall the exact price for the camera, but it was not more than a couple of hundred, so your unblock+cam price seems very high to me.

The quote that guy gave me (smaller job than yours: dig up and replace a couple of metres of smashed terracotta pipe - slight complications with concrete and shed surrounding the offending pipe, but no concrete-busting or -laying) was about 4-5k IIRC. I got someone else (found via this mob, who've been good so far) to do it (with their own inspection) for about 3k (NB: this guy was lean and hungry and just starting out, and I reckon I got a good deal. Were you in Melbourne, I'd recommend the bloke specifically.)

I'd ask:

Why bypass not replace? Seems like extra work (esp digging), but maybe there's a reason. I don't know your site.

In general: get a couple more quotes.
posted by pompomtom at 8:02 PM on December 13, 2015

You paid for the inspection, you should definitely get your DVD. Keep asking. Did you sign a contact?
posted by halogen at 8:02 PM on December 13, 2015

Ublock and cam for that much is pricey - but I don't if the access hatch factor added a lot (did you use the guy I recommended? My recommendations aren't going well for you are they!?)

Sticker shock at sewer pipe replacement is not uncommon, and nor, sadly, is the ballpark price you were quoted.

Definitely worth hiring someone else with a cam, I recs. Might be a few hundred bucks, but could save you a few thou. Good luck!
posted by smoke at 8:11 PM on December 13, 2015

Call an excavator. A reputable excavator has a plumbing contractor's license. They dig, more cheaply than plumbers. A number of years ago $1800. Bought me 90 feet of new line connecting to the sewer main, out back. They own their own backhoes and they are fast with them. In the US the water district has a map of your sewer lines. So, a digger can just rip them right out and slope the trench. It might be different in Australia. But check out excavators too.
posted by Oyéah at 8:13 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ok now I'm really suspicious. They all give out DVDs these days.

You paid for the inspection, you should definitely get your DVD. Keep asking. Did you sign a contact?
I can confirm this really isn't a thing in Australia. Very few plumbers would even record the video on a residential job, only a few have the wherewithall to supply a video or DVD for a commercial job, and extracting it from them can be a pain. I recently had to keep chasing up a large commercial-specialist plumber to get a copy of the video because the fsckin' insurance company refused to gve the go-ahead for repairs wthout it (long story...).

~15k sounds excessive but not totally out of the ballpark (the job I mentioned above was just over 10k in Brisbane, but totally different) for that amount of work depending on exactly what & where needs cutting/digging/restoration, and factoring in Sydney prices.
posted by Pinback at 8:49 PM on December 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Mom's basement drain backed up. Plumber 1 showed up, tried to snake the pipe, said it couldn't be done. Mud returning with the snaking gizmo meant that the pipe had collapsed, they would have to dig things up and replace the pipe, and it would cost on the order of six grand. Thanked plumber 1, called plumber 2 just to be on the safe side. Plumber 2 said 'yeah, plumber 1 is a scam artist and I wouldn't have him in my house.' Plumber 2 then snaked the drain, fixed the problem, and charged me seventy bucks or something. What you were told might be on the up and up, but a little healthy skepticism never hurt anybody.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:54 PM on December 13, 2015

If you end up getting another person out to scope the line removing the toilet is 10 minutes work and $3 for a new wax ring; especially when the fixture has been up recently. As long as you have some one who can lift the toilet (it's about 30 pounds) it'll be well worth it to pull the toilet yourself in the morning before the plumber comes out and then replace it yourself afterwords.
posted by Mitheral at 8:58 PM on December 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Awesome, everyone. Thanks heaps for all the advice. With your stories and with the second plumber's advice (who said, like the guy on the phone, that we lose nothing by waiting and seeing if it happens again, since they'd have to scope it first either way), I feel comfortable pretending this never happened for a while longer, and then shopping around for alternative companies if and when we need to.

The second plumber also laughed heartily at the other plumber's quote and said they could do it for around half of that if it turned out to be a straightforward job, and closer to but still under the $14k mark if they hit serious trouble. He said $14k from his company would get a fully replaced sewer from the bathroom connections all the way through to the mains, not just the 4m section the other guys were going to do. He also said he would have charged about $500 for this morning's unblocking/scoping. Given the huge discrepancy between the quotes, though, if we do have to go ahead and do serious repairs, I'll be getting a few other opinions too.

I've had a private message from one person with a recommendation, and I had completely forgotten about your recommendation from earlier, Smoke, so those are two possibilities, and ninazer0, I'd love your recommendation too if you can memail me. I am also in Parramatta!
posted by lollusc at 9:13 PM on December 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can confirm this really isn't a thing in Australia. Very few plumbers would even record the video on a residential job,

posted by pompomtom at 9:14 PM on December 13, 2015

In Texas, I've had sewer lines at rent houses unclogged and scoped two or three times. Each time it costed $200-$250. They didn't record the scoping, and I didn't think anything of it. This is a plumbing company I've used for many years now and have an actual relationship with.

These guys sound full of shit.
posted by cmoj at 10:56 PM on December 13, 2015

posted by ninazer0 at 12:30 AM on December 14, 2015

$900 for an hour's work?! That's almost a decent wage ...

I think you were/will be ripped off by that lot. As you have indicated in your reply, getting some more quotes is the way to go. Speak to neighbours, friends, workmates, anyone and everyone about a good plumber, (or here ;-) ). But don't wait until you NEED the plumber, get it fixed before it is blocked again.
posted by GeeEmm at 12:38 AM on December 14, 2015

I'm in Seattle, which is relatively expensive as these things go. And we're in a building boom. I'm not a contractor, but I have had recent work done on sewer pipes.

I had this happen at one house two years ago.

I paid approx $500 to get it inspected with a camera and to get it unplugged. So $900 sounds expensive to me.

But beware of price books, because they're usually made up. I got several quotes (business was slower two years ago) and the ones with the "fixed price" was always ridiculously expensive.

In our case, our one hole in the pipe just meant that section of the pipe had to be replaced. That section was under our front yard. They wanted to charge us $1,400 to cut the shrub, dig the (large) hole, cut the pipe, and replace just that portion of it. My husband cut the brush and dug the hole and we paid the plumber about $600 to do the actual plumbing. So if it's one hole, it might be way cheaper to go that route. You might also be able to save by coordinating different contractors. (Most people hate digging holes.) We've had no issues in the last 2 years, and the rest of the pipe looked good.

However, clay pipes (if that's what yours is) have approximately 100 years of life, or so I was told. It might be that your entire pipe will need to be replaced in the next several years anyway, so you might as well replace the entire pipe. For that, $10k-$20k (depending on your situation, how long your pipe is, etc) sounds like a fair price. We spent $14k to redo a pipe using pipe bursting technology (on a different house) this year. It was maybe 50 ft long? They had to bust open the sidewalk and fix it, but not the road.
posted by ethidda at 11:27 AM on December 14, 2015

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